No, You Belong

written by Kat Bair
7 · 10 · 24

I led a youth ministry retreat once with the theme “I Belong.” and we gave out black crewneck sweatshirts with “I Belong.” on the front as merch. I wanted teenagers, while they were getting dressed, to have an option of wearing something that was a declarative statement of their own identity, belovedness and belonging. It was an effective and well-received visual. 

But teenagers, being teenagers, will always find their own way to subvert even the most wholesome of intentions. The kids wore the sweatshirts to school, and started doing a very funny thing. When they spotted someone wearing the sweatshirt, even if they weren’t really friends, they would point at them and say “You belong!” and the person would shout back “No, you belong!” with the tone of it being an insult or a threat, like the way someone would yell ‘get lost,’ and ‘no, you get lost.’ But they meant it literally, it wasn’t meant to be rude, it was just the hysterical and baffling way that young people (they would have all been Gen Zers) have always rolled their eyes at too much sentimentality, while also craving its connection. 

It’s a tradition that has lasted years and years and has had several reincarnations. When we consider what makes a community a community, we are tempted to look to things like vision statements, articulated missions, or even geographic locations, histories, or demographics, but I wonder if communities are built in something much simpler: traditions, or more appropriately for our work – liturgies.

Because “You belong!”/“No, you belong!” isn’t just a joke, it’s a liturgy. It’s a sacred call and response that both literally and metaphorically affirms your place in the community. These exist in all kinds of communities, in the “OH?”/“IO!” of my husband’s home state, the secret handshakes of Fraternity and Sorority communities, or Christianity’s own “Peace be with you”/ “And also with you.” 

Aside: If you have 90 seconds, are comfortable with jokes about church, and don’t mind colorful language, may I recommend this John Mulaney clip about how deeply held those liturgies are. 

And what is interesting about liturgies is that they have a self-referential/self-reinforcing relationship with the communities they exist in. The liturgies often emerge out of the community’s beliefs, but they also help shape and strengthen those beliefs. We bought the teenagers those sweatshirts because a sense of community belonging was important to us, and their reaction to them confirmed how important those ties were, but also, the senior pointing and yelling at a freshman across the cafeteria that they belonged, and that freshman knowing exactly what to say back, creates a sense of community and belonging. 

Obviously, many of our churches have liturgies, but I wonder what it would look like to intentionally claim or integrate a few into our lived identities as a community? Could we participate in this ancient form of Christian formation in a new way? 

Could you have a call-and-response benediction that people held on to, like the one that was long used by First UMC Fort Worth, Texas, where every service ended with the pastor saying “Our gathering will soon be ended; where will we go and what will we do?” and the congregation responding “We will go out and be God’s people in the world.” 

Could you have a hymn that you sang the first verse of during every service? What is something that could continue to hold value, and be self-perpetuating, outside of a worship service? Could something like a consistent check-in question (I think of John Wesley’s “How is it with your soul?”) take on a life of its own outside the church walls? And what about your community could you reinforce and strengthen with the liturgies you choose?

If you’re not sure where to start, ask members of your community what parts of your community life they most gravitate towards, maybe what they miss when the church can’t gather, or what they think of when they imagine the place. There are probably already little liturgies in your community, and something as simple as a sweatshirt and a snarky joke can help them take on a life of their own. We hope these conversations bring you joy, and let us know what you come up with!

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Kat Bair

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